Old West in new light
Steamboat artist adds color to vintage images
March 6, 2004
The pioneer photographer Laton A. Huffman would be stunned if he could visit Two Rivers Gallery in downtown Steamboat Springs. And he almost certainly would approve of the painstaking hand-coloring by Janna Marxuach-Steur that enhances his sepia-toned images.
Huffman was a documentary photographer working on Montana’s eastern plains as the 19th century rolled into the 20th century. It was a time when there were bands of free-roaming American Indians, large herds of North American bison and homesteaders had yet to put up barbed-wire fences and bust the sod of the great northern prairies.
Huffman never saw his compelling photographs the way they can be seen today on the walls of Two Rivers. He was limited to a relatively primitive process that meant he rarely, if ever, reproduced his photographs larger than 7-by-9-inch contact prints. Today, the images can be enlarged to 40 inches, bringing out details that are barely perceptible in the original albumen prints. And in the tradition of many photographers of Huffman’s era, Marxuach-Steur is carefully adding color to the photographs, bringing portraits of cowboys and plains Indians to life.
“What I love most about working on them is that it brings history alive,” she said. “These are real working cowboys. These aren’t Hollywood cowboys. … It would be interesting for Huffman to be able to see what he has meant to the art world.”
Huffman was born in Iowa in 1854 and as a young man apprenticed with photographers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He left his native Iowa for good at the age of 24 and traveled west, first in a stagecoach and then in a buckboard wagon. He traveled through the Dakota Territories and then into the Montana Territory, arriving at Fort Keogh in 1878, just one year after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The frontier era of the American West essentially was over, but Huffman arrived in time to witness and record glimpses of vanishing lifestyles. And he was not content, as writer Nancy Ellis observed in the fall 1995 issue of Cowboys and Indians magazine, to merely document the vanishing American West. Instead, he lived the life of a rancher, horseman, big-game hunter and guide. He often risked his life to get the images he sought.
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Many of the Indian tribes surrendering to white authorities in that era were processed at Fort Keogh, giving Huffman ready access to individuals for portrait sessions.
Doug Kenyon of Two Rivers Gallery saw Huffman’s work in the early 1970s while he was working as the chief conservator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. When shown a couple of Huffman originals by a visitor, Kenyon was motivated enough to travel to Miles City, Mont., where the photographer spent most of his career. Kenyon was able to acquire the Huffman estate, including what remained in his original collection of prints.
Huffman wasn’t recognized as a fine art photographer in his lifetime — he marketed his work as book illustrations and sold thousands of his prints for pennies in profit. He died in 1934, with unpaid debts all over Miles City. In the 1970s, people could purchase his images for $1 apiece, Kenyon said.
That was destined to change, and today, one of his original 7-by-9 contact prints sells for $4,500.
“Because they are so damn rare, I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to make some big copy negatives, and make them both available and affordable,” Kenyon said.
Kenyon arranged to have his collection of Huffman originals professionally photographed on 8-by-10 film. The huge negatives then can be used to make photographic prints that are several magnitudes larger than what Huffman was able to print. Suddenly, new details sprang out of the photographs. In a photograph of three mounted cowboys, the differences in the bridles and bits the cowhands used were discernible. The details of the quillwork on an Indian woman’s leather shirt were there to be studied and appreciated.
During his lifetime, Huffman was known to add color to his sepia (brown and tan) photographs by applying transparent oil paints. Instead of using a brush, he was known to have applied the oils by blowing them out of a pipette held in his mouth. Huffman’s coloring lacks precision in some cases, and he may not have had the temperament demanded by the work.
Kenyon resolved to have his reproductions of Huffman’s original prints hand-colored. He wanted to see them done with more precision but wanted to stay true to traditional methods.
Remarkably, Marshall Oils, the modern manufacturer of transparent oils for tinting photographs, is the same company that supplied Huffman with his materials, Kenyon said.
Kenyon has trained several employees to color the photographs in the decade that his Ninth Street gallery has been open. But they all moved on to new jobs after a time. In Marxuach-Steur, he thinks he has found the ideal artist.
“When Janna got the hang of it after three or four months, she surpassed any expectations I had,” Kenyon said. “She’s the best.”
Marxuach-Steur has a bachelor of fine arts degree from Kearney State College (now the University of Nebraska-Kearney) and for many years was involved in hand-painting furniture. She also has worked as a graphic artist. She said she was hesitant about tackling the new medium of hand-coloring photographs at first, then found it fit her natural affinity for detailed work.
As much as he values Marxuach-Steur’s attention to detail, Kenyon said it’s her artistic sensibility that elevates her work. It is important to him that the finished hand-colored prints are faithful to what a photographer working in the late 19th century might have done. Marxuach-Steur has visited museums to gain a deeper understanding of the subtle use of color employed by photographers before there was such a thing as color film.
Marxuach-Steur works at an easel, right in the middle of Two Rivers Gallery. She holds a small rectangular palette in one hand and a cotton pad or cotton swab in the other hand. Working swiftly, she blends colors and daubs them onto a large photograph. She uses a pale blue on the prairie skies and achieves just the right tint for dun-colored sagebrush hills. She doesn’t pick up a paintbrush until she delves into fine details such as the hatbands on a cowboy’s Stetson.
Most of all, Marxuach-Steur said, she wants to be certain the color is applied evenly so that the photograph does not take on the look of a painting.
A trip to the gallery at 56 Ninth St. is like a trip to a museum, and the knowledgeable staff welcomes browsers. The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.